Bearskin Lake First Nation almost ‘at breaking point,’ says chief

The Bearskin Lake First Nation is “almost at the breaking point,” because nearly half of its residents have tested positive for COVID-19, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said Friday.

The remote community of about 400 people is about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. On Thursday, it had 201 confirmed cases of COVID, after declaring a state of emergency on Dec. 29.

“Due to overcrowding and a lack of community infrastructure, where the infected could not be separated from the uninfected, the virus spread very quickly,” said Frank McKay of the Windigo Tribal Council, which serves remote northern Ontario communities, including Bearskin Lake.

Kamenawatamin, who’s been in isolation since his son tested positive on Monday, is asking the federal government to send in the military.

About 30 people are delivering firewood, food, and water to the community, where homes rely on wood stoves for heat.

Community leaders say it’s not nearly enough.

Late Thursday evening, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones submitted an official request to the federal government for the military’s help in Bearskin Lake, a request the community says it made days ago.

Charles Fox, a community-liaison officer, said he was told that the First Nation had to fill out forms and exhaust all other options before the military would be sent in. Fox told reporters on Friday that the community had done all that, but it still needs about 60 soldiers to help it through the emergency.

“This should not be that hard for the federal government,” NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters during a virtual news conference. “Twenty-four hours ago, the minister (of Indigenous Services, Patty Hadju) said she was working on getting 40 personnel on the ground. Where are they? … Where is the federal government? They need to show up.”

On Dec. 30, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) deployed a rapid-response team to the community, ISC spokesperson Nicolas Moquin told iPolitics.

ISC has provided $1.2 million for food, personal protective equipment, isolation accommodations, wages, and transport, Moquin said in an email.

And the government is ready to do more, Hajdu tweeted on Friday.

Kamenawatamin said about 80 per cent of the community is vaccinated, including five- to 11-year-olds who got their first shots in December, just before the virus broke out.

He said mental-health support is also needed for people who are feeling isolated and stressed by the fact that elders and young children, including a nine-month-old baby, have tested positive for COVID.

“The truth is (that) we’re in a crisis, and there is no federal response,” Fox said.

“As Canadian citizens, we deserve the same rights and recognition as other Canadians when we ask for help,” McKay said. “We should get an immediate positive response.”

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